"Toying Around" With a Standpipe Water Supply

Aug. 1, 2007

Before we look at this month's close call, a quick word and opinion related to the horrific loss of nine of our brothers in Charleston, SC. Probably like you, I have had several conversations with different fire friends who I work with or writers and instructors like Dr. Harry Carter since the fatal fire. Like you, we have received loads of photos, e-mails and related information on the fire. Many of the comments were negative opinions about how the fire was handled — but the first priority was to give those firefighters a respectful and peaceful memorial service and individual funerals. That has happened.

The next step is for the fire investigation and firefighter fatality experts to determine what happened, and then the next step is for us to learn and share that information with every firefighter. But it's not the last step. The last step is for every one of us in every fire department to take that information and, as applicable, apply those changes in training so we operate as safely as is realistically possible. The only real, long-term way to honor those who are killed is to not have those of us get killed in the same ways — and that can only be successful at a local level by local fire chiefs, fire officers and firefighters, a/k/a all of "us."

While all of us are shocked when one firefighter is seriously injured or killed, when multiple firefighters are lost, we go beyond that. Again, understandable. And with all the activity going on in the last decade to reduce firefighter injury and death, the news of a firefighter death and multiple deaths slams us right in the heart. Very understandable. But after that, we need to let the facts unfold. It is tempting to write and comment, but the facts simply are not out. Like you, I have seen the photos and videos and like any other firefighter I have loads of questions. And that's what we have — questions. As far as I am concerned, we have an obligation on many counts to let the facts come out before we comment. That's how questions are answered honestly and how we learn. If you think you saw something that went wrong, the best action is to make sure you and your fire department don't do that, and train and train again on whatever your department perceives to be the correct way. That's how firefighter line-of-duty deaths are reduced.

Readers of this column know that most close calls and direct hits come down to a few basic items such as the failure of leadership, the absence of policy, policies ignored, not enforced or forgotten, equipment that was not maintained, and tactical operations that were not trained upon or ignored. Sometimes, it is the simple stuff that we were taught in basic recruit, probie or Firefighter I class that was not followed, such as:

  • Sit down, shut up, belt in
  • Use all of your personal protective equipment (PPE) without allowing any skin to be exposed
  • Breathe clean air or use your self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA).
  • Stay low
  • Stay with your crew
  • Know your way out
  • Know construction
  • Know what to listen for
  • Read the smoke
  • Get water on the fire and possibly solve most of the problems
  • Get a hoseline between the fire and the victim
  • Make sure you have water and a charged hoseline before committing to the interior area where the fire is burning

The issue of "getting water" can cover a large area, starting from the challenges of rural water supply all the way to making sure you have an adequate flow at the nozzle prior to entering the fire floor or related area. "Getting water" can mean ensuring water-supply plans are intact and that in rural areas everyone knows where the fill sites are located. In hydranted areas, it means knowing the hydrants are maintained (how do you really know?) and what they will supply. It also means knowing the current and long-term status of your water system. For example, a friend told me that an entire hydranted downtown area in her community had no water supply for over eight hours. The fire department found out when a firefighter went to take a shower — and couldn't. The fire department leadership had absolutely no clue that the water was shut off in the downtown area for construction. Systems must be in place to ensure that notifications happen — and that backup plans are established — before there is a fire. Odds are, they wouldn't have had a fire today…but "what if" they did have a fire?

The CAL FIRE/Riverside County, CA, Fire Department had a close call during training, which in some cases is the best time to experience a close call! Below is a brief synopsis of an incident that occurred to Riverside County Engine, Medic and Truck 86 during high-rise training. While preventing this type of incident is difficult, it is a great example of how hands-on training can minimize the risks that we encounter during real incidents. Captain Greg Ewing's comments can be used to start a discussion on tactics, strategy and problem-solving during emergency situations. Understanding the resolutions to these types of problems can help us all deal with them if we are faced with them during an actual fire call. Fortunately this incident occurred during training and no one was injured, but as Captain Ewing points out, reduction (or loss) of water flow during live-fire situations can be lethal.

Thanks to CAL FIRE /Riverside County Fire Chief John R. Hawkins, Captain Rick Griggs, and especially Captain Ewing and the firefighters of Indio Station 86 for this information and their cooperation.

The following account is by Captain Greg Ewing:

We had an interesting occurrence happen while conducting high-rise training at the County Administrative Center (CAC) in Indio. I am not writing to initiate or add fuel to any combo vs. smooth-bore debate, but to increase awareness of the potential "close calls" we may encounter on the fireground. I feel that what we experienced should be categorized as a "close call/near miss avoided," as under fire conditions it may have led to injury or death if companies were committed without knowing if they had water.

Riverside County Engine, Truck, and Medic 86 arrived at the CAC, a four-story office building in downtown Indio. The building is equipped with dry standpipes, and is sprinklered only in the basement and areas of the "east annex," an add-on to the main building. Our drill involved securing a water supply and pumping the central-stairway standpipe.

Members ascended to the roof and connected 50 feet of 2½-inch hose to the rooftop standpipe outlet (a 2½-by-2½-inch gated wye). The drill was to flow water over the side of the building and into the parking lot to let the pump operator familiarize himself with flow calculations and the firefighters to manipulate the line and nozzle. We initially flowed the combination nozzle attached to the "Triton" shutoff, with a 1½-inch tip behind the combo. This flow was decent and maneuverable, and we flowed continuously for about five minutes. We then removed the combo nozzle, leaving the 1½-inch tip attached as the final orifice.

Upon removing the combo nozzle, a firefighter noticed a handful of pea gravel occluding the neck of the nozzle. We took note, talked about the importance of flushing, nozzle checks, etc., and continued flowing the tip. After about 10 minutes of flowing the tip, we all witnessed a red projectile fly from the nozzle and follow the flow all the way to the ground. We all looked over the edge and agreed it was a candy wrapper.

After finishing the drill, one of the firefighters went to the parking lot and recovered the projectile. It wasn't a candy wrapper at all. It was a small toy bus, similar to a "Matchbox" car! We all gathered around and scratched our heads. We then tried to fit the toy into the tip. It fit, but barely. It was amazing that this object had made its way through the system after 15 minutes of continuous flow. No amount of pre-attack flushing would have cleared this out. Had this sucked up against the combo nozzle during fire conditions, the outcome would likely have been dire. Based upon case studies of "known" fires where firefighters lost their lives, I can picture firefighters deep into the attack losing their attack stream because of a kid's lost toy.

What struck us the most is that these systems get a lot of use, between both drills and maintenance. I'm not sure the old answer of preventative maintenance is a sure thing. I am, however, sure of what MY attack line system will consist of. I would insist that even combo advocates keep it attached to a tip, letting them "break away" and still have a fire stream.

The following lessons learned, comments and observations by Chief Goldfeder are based on communications with the writer and others.

Let's get into the smooth-bore vs. fog or combination nozzle debate. And while we are at it, let's discuss apparatus color.

Wait, never mind.

The fact is, this small toy could have caused a major problem had these firefighters been in an actual fire. Fortunately, they were not. Fortunately, they were training and the value of training (once again) paid off. Could this have happened at a fire? Of course, but it didn't and they found the problem during training. Additionally, any kind of obstruction may impact any nozzle of any kind. So what are the solutions?

Prevention opportunities, although limited, do exist by making sure first-due companies as well as fire inspectors working with building managers/owners ensure that annual maintenance of standpipe and related systems be performed based on the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 25 standard. NFPA 25 establishes the minimum requirements for the periodic inspection, testing and maintenance of water-based fire protection systems, including sprinklers, standpipes and hose, fixed water sprays and foam water. Included are the water supplies that are part of these systems, such as private fire service mains and appurtenances, fire pumps, water storage tanks and valves that control system flow. NFPA 25 also addresses impairment handling and reporting.

Operationally, at a fire company level, ensuring that the line has water and is flowing prior to entering the fire floor or area is critical. In several recent line-of-duty deaths, firefighters were operating on the fire floor prior to ensuring the proper flow. And, predictably, when the firefighters encountered problems, they simply had no water. As noted in the above case, the Riverside County firefighters did ensure that flow — and still they ended up with a problem, affirming that things can still go wrong. Had that been an actual fire, an additional crew or crews assigned to back them up would have been required protect the initial crew and the original fire problem.

Having the staffing required to provide that needed backup is, literally, a matter of life or death for firefighters. And once again, "staffing" rears its not-so-ugly head, but the fact is that firefighting is task-oriented and tasks require firefighters. If a fire department wants to provide backup lines, it takes firefighters to do that. How often are backup lines needed? At every fire, no matter what. How often are backup lines required to actually flow water in emergency situations? Not frequently, but no firefighting crew can afford not to have that backup. Firefighters and officers at all ranks need to picture themselves on the fire floor, the room is getting very hot and you open up your line…and get nothing. What would you want? What do you have in place at your fire department to provide properly staffed critical backup hoseline(s)?

This is yet another example where the only "emergency" solution — had this been an actual fire — would have been companies assigned to operate with or backing up the initial crew. Otherwise, as pointed out by Captain Ewing, the results could have been horrific.

WILLIAM GOLDFEDER, EFO, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a 32-year veteran of the fire service. He is a deputy chief with the Loveland-Symmes Fire Department in Ohio, an ISO Class 2 and CAAS-accredited department. Goldfeder has been a chief officer since 1982, has served on numerous IAFC and NFPA committees, and is a past commissioner with the Commission on Fire Accreditation International. He is a graduate of the Executive Fire Officer Program at the National Fire Academy and is an active writer, speaker and instructor on fire service operational issues. Goldfeder and Gordon Graham host the free and noncommercial firefighter safety and survival website www.FirefighterCloseCalls.com. Goldfeder may be contacted at [email protected].

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